140. Sociable (6)
Helpharon vomited blood, the wound in his stomach retearing and spilling more blood. He shuddered; the strength sustaining him had failed suddenly, and his bones felt as though they had been crushed by the impact.
‘My power…it’s been snuffed out? But how? What force could do this?’
Helpharon fell to his knees, unable to stand before Salem’s might. The Evilesse Knights crushed him: they ran through his limbs with spears and swords, and when he was pinned, wrapped his body in chains.
“UWAAAAACK!” Helpharon screamed.
“Quiet, old man!” one barked.
“Maybe we should rip his tongue out?” another one hissed.
“What say you? Sounds like a good idea to me!” a third cackled.
They turned to the Pope, brimming with sadism, waiting for permission from their master. His confidence returned, and with it his arrogance. Salem
stood up from his throne, descended to the chained man, and grabbed Helpharon’s head. He looked upon his captive, twisting and tilting his face back and forth, perusing it. The threat, now beneath nearly a dozen knights, looked small and powerless. Salem released Helpharon’s head and then swiftly kicked him in the jaw.
“You dare play with me?” he said, striking his heel upon Helpharon’s temple. “You say that you raised me, but all you did was condescend me! Did you think I was so naive, a puppet king you could so easily control? You should know your limits–a mere knight could never overtake the power that makes me the Pope, the ruler of this world!”
Salem’s teeth cracked beneath the force which he clenched his teeth. Veins throbbed from upon his forehead, and his brow twisted with rage at Helpharon. The Knights merely shook their heads upon seeing their master; they had no intention to intervene, even as the Pope harmed himself in his blind anger.
“Show him the price of defiance–he’ll never even think of leaving you again!”
Salem grabbed one of the children and shoved him before Helpharon.
‘Lord…Egil!’ Helpharon struggled with all his might.
“Watch me devour the pets that you’ve dared to love and raise.” Salem grabbed Egil’s head.
“W-what’s happening? Lord Helpharon–!”
Egil panicked and tried to pull away, but Salem’s grasp was too strong. Salem focused his strength on his hand.
“Watch, Helpharon, as I crush him!”
Helpharon struggled with the rest of his might but to no avail. “Stop!” He protested desperately. Salem smiled gleefully, squeezing harder.
Egil flailed his hands, grasping at Salem’s hand. “Please, it hurts! It hurts… Help!”
Salem laughed maniacally as the child feebly tugged at his fingers, squeezing even harder. Egil’s expression began to slip in and out of focus; his eyes rolled into his head, and his body went limp.
“That is your son, Salem Gattshuranche!!” Helpharon shouted in shrill desperation.
Salem’s concentration broke. Not only Salem, but every Evilesse Knight looked wide-eyed to the unconscious child in Salem’s grasp.
“Y-you must be joking–and your jokes have run their course! First, you talk about the dead Hero Thoma, and now I’m supposed to believe that I have a son! Either this particular child is quite special, or your conception of me as one of an immeasurable fool. No lie so thin–”
“He is your son. If not, have it proven by the priests! They would be able to prove his lineage.”
Salem hesitated. It was possible to prove something like that with the magic of the priests. Even so, Salem was well aware that this could just be a lie from a desperate man.
‘How could it be true? He’s simply trying to buy more time.’
However, he was not convinced: his high was wavering as he began to fall into thought. Could he be sure that Herlpharon was lying? Even when he was willing to bet proof?
“A son? How could there be a son? All the women I’ve been with–”
“All the women you’ve been with have been killed, but one did survive. One of the maids that you had, that you forced yourself upon before abandoning–he is the child born from that survivor.”
Salem, incensed, stamped upon Helpharon’s pinned hand with his foot.
”Uwaack!” Helpharon cried, the bones in his hand cracking as Salem ground them beneath his heel.
“Am I supposed to find that even remotely believable?”
It was true: the women who came to Salem’s bed met their end then. When his sexual proclivities had been satiated, his violent ones took hold, and he would get a rush from beating their bodies with his fists. An ordinary woman surviving the strength he bolstered from years of child sacrifice was a laughable idea, especially since he had already killed so many women this way.
And still, a pit in his stomach formed–Helpharon was not known for being a liar, yet he claimed one of these women survived and had birthed a child. Furthermore, Helpharon had kept this information from him?
“You, who had access to me that few could dream of…” Salem glowered. “You were planning on having this Child replace me!” There was no response, which was all the confirmation Salem needed. He pressed his temples. “You don’t deny it?”
“Please, Your Holiness! Merely see for yourself!”
Salem wiped his face, then returned his gaze to the limp Egil in his grip.
“…My son?” His voice cracked as he spoke. He twisted his face. Helpharon implored him, hearing the doubt (or maybe the possibility of belief) in Salem’s voice.
“He is your son! Would you kill your own flesh and blood, Pope Salem?”
Salem said nothing, taking Egil in with both hands. Egil’s skin had been torn along his forehead, and blood smeared alongside his face. Salem began to nurse the wound, sending his power into them.
“… It is true, isn’t it? He is my son, my blood. Then I am this child’s father.” He began to laugh. “A father?” he repeated in bewilderment, yet his expression grew bright with excitement and paternity. “Someone of mine to look after? Someone to trust?”
His expression soured to indifference.
“Not a chance.”
He dropped Egil unto the stone floor.
“Son? Bloodline? What are these things to me? A family means nothing but competition for power–someone like that would only be useful for chasing me out!”
Salem bit down on his wrist, tearing flesh and spilling unnaturally thick and viscous blood onto the floor. It pooled and formed its own patterns, twisting and spreading into runes. Helpharon froze.
“Son,” Salem chuckled, his expression again twisting into a magnanimous and bright smile. “That’s good. Father and son shall become a single body. What could be a more joyous occasion? If he were truly my son, this knowledge should bring him joy! He’d be glad to be reunited with me!”
Helpharaon incredulity made him doubt his ears. What lunacy could Salem be speaking of?
“I shall use this child as a tribute for our ritual. Only one is worthy of birthing for me: Akareal! If it’s not hers, I don’t need anyone else’s child, nor will I acknowledge them as my own!”
The runes upon the floor began to glow.
“He really is mad,” A knight muttered beneath his breath. The others click their tongues and sucked their teeth in agreement, speaking amongst themselves.
“What did we get ourselves into?”
“If he’s disposing of his own blood and flesh, we can’t pretend we’ll be safe.”
“We should make our exit…after we’ve had our fun, of course.”
Of course, they had no fealty to the Pope: they were there for the power of extended life and superhuman strength. But they were wizened enough to know that such a contract had its limits, and a mad Pope would soon be more trouble than he was worth.
The light from the runes went from red to crimson, reaching and piercing the children suspended above it, taking their lives to fuel its power. Helpharon squeezed his eyes shut. Only one thing could stop Salem Now.
“Hero Thoma is coming for you.”
“This again?” Salem said. “It won’t work. A dead man won’t stop me.”
“He’s dead. What idiocy do–”
“The conqueror of the former capital, Lania, the warning in the Golden Territory, the defeat of the Hero’s Allied Army, and the murder of Archbishop Holffmann. What confidence do you have that the Hero Thomas is not responsible for these things?”
Salem squatted beside Helpharon and pulled his face up by his hair.
“That ‘Devil’ is nothing more than a necromancer and a heretic.”
“Are you sure?” Helpharon smiled thickly. “His power didn’t remind you of your former companion?”
“No way. He knew nothing of Necromancy.”
“And you don’t find it strange his obsession with you? Someone powerful enough to topple the Holy Kingdom single-handedly left you warnings of vengeance and resentment?”
“If the Hero were there, he would have died from a disease that followed the collapse, or the destruction of Lania itself–”
“The Fragment of God,” Helpharon said. “What if he managed to get his hands on the object of your quest for eternal life?”
“What do you know of it?”
“Release Lord Egil, and I shall tell you where the Fragment of God is. I will even help you capture him.”
Salem hesitated, visibly considering Helpharon’s proposal. Helpharon could not afford to wait.
“Trust me, Pope Salem. This is my final request as the attendant who raised you.”
— Ω —